What does it mean to make public art happen in spaces and places that lie at the margin between used and unused or undeveloped? Who gets invited? Who responds? Who just wanders in? What does it mean to make a specific place viable, vibrant, interesting and relevant to the surrounding community when that particular place does not have a clear, present purpose and its future is still unrealized (um, it’s an empty lot overgrown with weeds)?

These are some of the questions that have sprung up for the artists and organizations who are collaborating in the Richfield Artist Resident Engagement (RARE) program, a joint project of Forecast Public Art and The Cornerstone Group, a progressive real estate developer. Together Forecast and The Cornerstone Group with the support of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, wanted to connect various communities in the City of Richfield with the energies and talents of artists. Artists Witt Siasoco and Emily Johnson are working now in the community with an eye toward building a model for what an ongoing artist residency would look like in a planned new residential development in Richfield called Lyndale Gardens. Both Forecast and The Cornerstone Group wanted to use public art to connect people, personalize the space around the planned development, and activate civic dialogue around the role of the arts in Richfield both now and in the future.

Now halfway through the RARE project, what has been happening?

  • Artist Witt Siasoco has set up a studio space in the basement of The Cornerstone Group offices located at the site of the future Lyndale Gardens development. He does his own design and silk screening work there, including work for other community arts projects that he is a part of. He invites youth and other community members down to talk and create and he has plans to make large-scale portraits of local people that will be visible on the site throughout September.
  • Artists Emily Johnson and Julia Bither of Catalyst have been out and about in the Richfield community gathering input and ideas from area residents on what they hope for and want for their community. People have stopped by their table set up at the Richfield Farmer’s Market or at Augsburg Library, and they write their ideas on a quilt square that will be added to a large, colorful community quilt eventually. This quilt is being sewed together with the help of various community members, including residents at Village Shores, a senior living community in Richfield, and with the support of artist Maggie Thompson who is helping in its overall design. Documenting the conversations that are happening around creating the squares and sewing them together are at the core of their RARE project, but eventually the quilt itself will be on display and part of future star-gazing events.
  • The Cornerstone Group has hired artist organizer Andrew Gaylord to work on the RARE project and other arts-based community development projects. Andrew has been getting to know different people and organizations in Richfield who help make art and community events happen (Park and Rec; the city Arts Commission; etc.) and trying to broaden the conversation around what art and art making looks like in civic spaces and contexts.
  • Forecast is learning about what it takes to support artistic work in a context that requires intense collaborations among artists, real estate developers, and other civic entities in Richfield.

There have been some surprises: Siasoco, for instance, had originally planned to work with local youth to develop a DIY skate park. Ultimately the insurance liability was too great to overcome, and he has had to stay focused on visual art mediums and developing some digital video artifacts with local community members, including youth.

Additionally, it has been more complicated to host events on the planned Lyndale Gardens development site so the work that Johnson and Bither are doing, for instance, has had to take place in settings at which people already gather—like the Farmer’s Market. It has been hard for them to gain the kind of momentum that they would need to bring people to the site on a more regular basis.

All this is part of learning what it takes to create an effective model for community development that includes art and art making. Various joys and frustrations come with the territory. But the artists are having interesting and in-depth conversations with a wide range of community members as part of their projects. Siasoco, for instance, is finding that some of the issues on people’s minds intersect issues he is dealing with in other art projects—issues like how racial segregation plays out in housing and how economic disparities dictate where people can and can’t live in Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs. And Forecast and the Cornerstone Group are able to get a real sense of the dynamics and tensions that affect a city or a developer’s ability to accommodate and nurture a wide range of artists and ways of working in the arts.

Compiled by Becca Barniskis, an independent evaluator hired by Forecast for the RARE project.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.